It sounds like a scene from a daytime talk show: A youthful offender and his victim come together at an emotionally charged meeting that ends when both agree to a resolution.
Such unorthodox scenarios will soon replace traditional courtroom proceedings in three Baltimore communities, where parents, neighbors and victims will dole out justice in some cases involving first-time juvenile offenders.
"Baltimore needs this, because there are a number of people in Baltimore who feel crime has gotten out of control," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
"This program helps offenders understand what they did is wrong," she said.
Representatives from the three communities -- Druid Heights, Park Heights and Franklin Square -- and police officers and Department of Juvenile Justice caseworkers will gather today for a three-day training seminar on conducting Community Conferences. First-time juvenile offenders who admit involvement in misdemeanor crimes, including theft and vandalism, are candidates for the program.
"We're hoping the village approach really comes alive," said Anthony Pressley of Druid Heights Community Development Corp., who anticipates hearing 48 cases during the next year. "If you send a 17-year-old away to a boys home, when he comes back, you'll have more trouble than if you worked with him in the community."
Such meetings also address the emotional fallout of a crime -- something victims say the legal system often ignores. Townsend is one example. After she was burglarized by young neighborhood residents, she was flooded with unsettling emotions, she said.
"That emptiness and sense of loss, not only of goods but loss of sense of control, is what this initiative is trying to address," she said.
Giving victims a chance to tell offenders how a crime has shaken them can produce remarkable results, according to two Australian experts who will lead the training seminar. Repeat offenses by juveniles have dropped significantly since such conferences were launched in that country six years ago, according to David Moore, a director of Transformative Justice Australia.
Although participants enter the meetings with "every negative emotion you can imagine," by the time both sides have told their stories, "the victims tend to ask for lighter [consequences] than the offender," Moore said.
Statistics closer to home seem to bear out such findings. A handful of communities across the country, including Woodbury, Minn., are experimenting with similar conferences.
David Hines, community justice coordinator of the Woodbury Police Department, said that of 135 conferences held since 1995, every offender directed to pay financial restitution has done so. By comparison, only about half of court-ordered restitutions are paid, he said.
"Because they have to meet with people personally, it forms a relationship where it's difficult not to fulfill that," Hines said.
More valuable to victims might be the sense of closure some, but not all, get from the face-to-face meetings. Hines remembers a young single mother who told teen-age offenders how terrified she and her children became after her home was pelted with debris. A neighbor weighed in as well, recounting how the woman reported she had trouble sleeping after the incident.
"That was the thing that moved" the offenders, Hines said. "They became apologetic and assured the victim she would never have to worry about them again."
Several rules will govern conference proceedings. Participants, including police officers, caseworkers, residents and family BTC members of the offender and victim, sit facing one another in a circle. It is important that the offender speak first to avoid defensive feelings, Moore said.
Facilitators who help organize the Community Conferences are instructed not to ask offenders why they committed a crime. Victims, however, may ask whatever they want.
Townsend said the meetings will deliver justice more speedily to victims who would otherwise be processed through a clogged court system. In 1997, 71 juveniles were arrested for misdemeanor burglaries, 243 for trespassing and 457 for disorderly conduct, according to statistics from the Baltimore Police Department.
The training session, funded by an $18,825 grant from the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, will be held at Bethel AME Outreach Center.
Pub Date: 3/05/98